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Discussion Club Intermediate: Giselle


jack-ziegler-a-monarch-strikes-a-ballet-dancing-pose-several-feet-behind-him-is-his-th-new-yorker-cartoonWhenever a ballet company programs one of the half-dozen classics in the repertory, a chorus of groans arises from the dance community. I admit I was overwhelmed when Fleet Boston Celebrity Series and the Wang Centre informed us that all five performances by American Ballet Theatre would consist of a single story ballet, Le Corsaire. The prospect improved significantly when logistical problems necessitated a switch to Giselle, but the threat of encroaching Disneyfication remains. Do local dancegoers always have to be coaxed to buy their tickets with promises of the most palatable, tried-and-true, escapist dance fare?
Ballet can't survive on its past alone, but good rescensions of the classics are something we need to have around, as touchstones, models, and a source of purest dance pleasure. Giselle is perhaps the most admirable of these historic survi­vors. It can hold psychological, theatrical, and choreographic challenges for contemporary interpreters with its finely wrought score by Adolphe Adam and a plot no less plausible than a James Bond movie.
ABT's lost world of peasants and nobles who make fatal mistakes and are punished by supernatural forces achieved a tricky balance: it looked authentic but not generic or dated. Authentic is a loaded word, since Giselle — like every other 19th-century ballet and many more recent ones — is a pastiche of things handed down and newly reproduced, things remem­bered and gaps repaired, adaptations to modern theatre practice and dancers and audiences. None of us was there in 1841 to verify what the original Giselle looked like, and no documen­tation would have been foolproof enough to ensure that every step, every gesture, every floor pattern would stay the same for 160 years. A modern Giselle is always a supposition, a best guess.
ABT's version incorporates choreography by half a dozen ballet masters besides its successive creator-adapters, Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, but its current staging is credited to artistic director Kevin McKenzie. The decor (by Goanna Quaranta) and costumes (Anna Anni) are holdovers from the 1985 movie Dancers, and the score has been orches­trated by John Lanchbery. All these hands have artfully retrofit­ted the ballet for modern eyes and ears. What I liked so much about it was its clarity and its attention to the many interwoven themes in the story.
Giselle takes place in two contrasting but mutually ac­commodating spheres, the real and the supernatural. The coun­try winemakers live an orderly, predictable life under their royal patrons, but at night, spirits inhabit the forest, with their own social codes and magic. The inclusion of peasants, princes, and Wilis obviously makes for a spectrum of dance opportunities, but in narrative terms, I've never been so aware of three distinct social strata as in this production.
The villagers wear pale green and grey against an autum­nal landscape. When the Prince of Courland's hunting party stops by for a rest at the inn of Giselle's mother, the peasants gather excitedly to watch the royal visit. As the entourage sweeps in, with its Russian wolfhounds and spear carriers and court­iers dressed in silk and velvet in shades of maroon and black, the pastoral space suddenly becomes more vivid, perhaps even harsh. Later, in the haunted forest, a luminous sky can be seen beyond the trees, but the woods are really dark except when something flashes by in the distance, lightning perhaps, or a passing Wilis. These things happen much the same way in all versions of Giselle, but Jennifer Tipton's masterful lighting transforms the scene and intensifies all the effects.
The story of the ballet is based on class differences any­way, but Tipton and the other creators of this production have emphasized the social context in which a fate like Giselle's is possible. Seduced by a nobleman, she risks her whole future by giving herself to him. Her mother knows the secret of the Wilis, that jilted girls will die and return to take revenge on their deceivers. It's a certainty that Albrecht will betray Giselle, and her mother foresees the consequences, though she issues a more practical warning: Giselle has a weak heart and overexertion is dangerous. But Giselle invites her girl friends to dance with her, foreshadowing the feminine community of the Wilis she's doomed to join. They crown her queen of the harvest, but she'll trade this earthly existence under the royal patrons for a restless afterlife ruled by a spirit queen, Myrtha.
The whole ballet is filled with echoes and portents. Giselle teaches Albrecht a little country-dance. After discovering he's engaged to the princess Bathilde, she stumbles through the same steps, as if trying to cling to her reason. Feverish from shock and too much dancing, she dies. In act two a deeply repentant Albrecht visits her grave in the forest, and she sets out to save him from being danced to death by the Wilis. When she first appears to him, they recall their first companionable, side-by-side courting with a parallel dance, only now they face in different directions on criss-crossing paths; they can't inhabit the same world any more. Another example: the Wilis and Myrtha cross their arms over their breasts in the mime gesture for death, and when Albrecht tries to capture the ghost of Giselle, his empty embrace closes into the same corpselike pose.
Despite the melodrama and spectacle — or maybe because of it — the heart of Giselle is its dancing.  Unlike the later high classics (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty), in which dance is a separate action that interrupts the story, the romantic ballets weave dancing into the story, through style, steps, and staging. The peasants in Giselle's act one do folk like dances. Special friends and Giselle's village suitor, Hilarion, can behave with more classical refinements, and when Giselle asks two friends to dance for the nobility, the Peasant Pas de Deux expands into a more virtuosic entertainment. Opening night this was performed by Herman Cornejo, who jumps without any seem­ing effort at all, and Xiomara Reyes, who stressed the frilly soubrette qualities of the role.
Albrecht and Giselle get most of the bravura dancing — in the first act it sprouts directly out of their courtship, and in the second it's an extended adagio that begins in sorrow and broad­ens into urgent lifts and leaps as the couple try to thwart Myrtha and the Wilis. The unison dancing of the Wilis has become a test of classical fidelity for a corps de ballet. They don't just pose and shift their line-ups in obedience to Myrtha's commands. They surge forward like arrows in pursuit of Hilarion and Al­brecht. They travel in hopping arabesque, as creatures eternally bound to both the earth and the air.
The first of ABT's four casts offered authoritative dancing and thoughtful characterizations by all the principals. Paloma Herrera's Giselle, a beaming, happy girl at first, began the famous mad scene with an interesting denial. When the jealous Hilarion exposes Albrecht as a nobleman in disguise, Herrera closes her eyes. She's not refusing to believe this deception; she's probably known it all along and can accept it if Albrecht loves her. What really unhinges her is the subsequent discovery that he has a noble fianc?e already. She descends into hysteria and runs frantically back and forth among the assembled villag­ers. A moment of recognition in her mother's arms, and then she rushes toward some invisible command and dies as Albre­cht tries to catch her.
Herrera's Albrecht, Marcelo Gomes, was big and beauti­ful. He focused on her totally, instead of trying to get her to look at him. You could almost believe that he was going to keep his promises to Giselle. Ethan Stiefel the next night clearly was infatuated by Xiomara Reyes, but his admiration was tempered by a playboy's self-assurance, the knowledge that he'd leave as soon as he tired of her.
Former Boston Ballet corps member Karin Ellis-Wentz as Giselle's mother opening night was thin and wary, almost puritanical. The next night Susan Jones in the role was ample and warm. Both of them performed the prophetic mime scene in a spacious way, showing everyone the place beyond the vil­lage where the mysterious spirits lurked, the untimely death that lay in store if Giselle wasn't careful, and the way she'd rise from the grave as a Wili to fly through the trees.
Two characters that usually get portrayed in stereotyped ways gained vital new identities. Princess Bathilde, Albrecht fiance'e, is usually a haughty woman who's probably picked him as a suitably aristocratic marriage partner. It was odd to see Monique Meunier, who joined ABT last year after some prom­ising years in New York City Ballet, playing a mime role, but she did it wonderfully. She was not only grand but also a snob, and the rest of the aristocrats followed suit, treating the peas­ants like servants and discreetly holding their costumes clear of the dust.
The Myrtha on opening night, Gillian Murphy, can only be called sublime. Murphy is tall and red-haired, pale and implacable. She materialized with a series of pas de bourre — tiny, rapid side-steps across the stage, so light and smooth she might really be a shadow. She circled regally in arabesque; in­voking whatever evil magic Wilis use to possess a space, and then, with the most chilling gestures, commanded her subjects to rise from the ground for their nightly ritual. You knew Giselle was up against a terrific power, and when she defeated Myrtha by keeping Albrecht alive until dawn; you realized a remarkable act of love had taken place.
Vocabulary Practice

I.  Give the English for:
любители балета
пробные камни
 «удобоваримое» эскапистское развлечение
воссозданные из прошлого вещи
нынешняя постановка
противоположные, но сосуществующие сферы
сельская местность
преображать сцену и усиливать все эффекты
предвещающий дурное
вести себя с более классической утонченностью
изображаемая традиционным способом
приобретать новую самобытность
приверженность классицизму
исполнять народные танцы
II. Give the literal translation of the below-mentioned lines:
1.  Ballet can't survive on its past alone, but good rescensions of the classics are something we need to have around, as touchstones, models, and a source of purest dance pleasure.
2. It can hold psychological, theatrical, and choreographic challenges for contemporary interpreters with its finely wrought score by Adolphe Adam and a plot no less plausible than a James Bond movie.
3.  All these hands have artfully retrofitted the ballet for modern eyes and ears.
4.  When she first appears to him, they recall their first companionable, side-by-side courting with a parallel dance, only now they face in different directions on criss-crossing paths: they can't inhabit the same world any more.
5. They don't just pose and shift their line-ups in obedi­ence to Myrtha's commands.
6. She materialized with a series of  pas de bourree — tiny, rapid side-steps across the stage, so light and smooth she might really be a shadow.
III. Translate these word combinations. Provide contexts from the text:
to necessitate smth
to survive on one's past alone
finely wrought score
to achieve (strike) a (tricky) balance
to retrofit smth.
to weave dancing into the story
to jump without seeming effort
to offer authoritative dancing and thoughtful characterization
to be portrayed in stereotyped ways
to gain new identities
IV. Match the definitions:


smth. that continued to exist longer than expected


to begin to have physical form; appear




found to be good and trustworthy by experience


friendly, likely to be a good companion


scenery, setting; sets; decorative fur­nishings


full of hidden unexpected difficulties


genuine, true and deserving to be believed or trusted

V. Talk over the following points:

1. What "disneyfication" is the author talking about? Com­ment on: "Do local dance goers always have to be coaxed to by their tickets with promises of the most palatable tried-and-true, escapist fare?"
2. Why are good rescensions of old classics something we need to have around?
3.  What tricky balance did ABT's lost world of peasants and nobles strike?
4. What did the author mean by "authentic"? What is his understanding of authenticity?
5. Why is modern Giselle always a supposition?
6.  How many people crafted the ballet's choreography? Whom is its current staging credited to?
7. Who orchestrated the score of the ballet?
8.  Whom and what does the ballet owe its heightened visual effectiveness?
9. What story does the ballet tell?
10. What social conflict is the story line based on?
11.  How eloquent did the author find the language of dance? How did the actors depict two parallel worlds: the ghost­like world and the world inhabited by people?
12.  What makes Giselle so unlike the later high classics? Where does its heart lie?
VI. Give a detailed description of the dancers' perfor­mances depicting:
Albrecht; Giselle; Myrtha; Willis; Princess Bathilde; Giselle's mother.
What fresh notes did they introduce into the much familiar dance routine?